Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Adventures in bread

When I was in year 7 (age 12) my class at school were given few 'cooking lessons' as part of our design classes. I don't remember everything we cooked but I do remember the first lesson making toasted cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate, I don't know how we did it but somehow we managed to make that class last two hours.

As the class went by things got a little more taxing, I remember doing flapjack one week and I can distinctly remember the pizza with the pre-made frozen pizza base, you wouldn't have gone back for a second slice, that's for sure.My last class was right before we split up for the Christmas holidays, and this time there was actually some cooking involved, we were going to make stollen. As you'd expect the marzipan was ready made and the dough was leavened with bicarb not yeast but still, it was cooking and I loved it!

My stollen was a disaster, the bread split as soon as I took it out of the oven, searing hot liquid marzipan gushed out across the worktop and on to the floor and I was lucky not to have been burnt! But that's not the point, I learned to love food and cooking and I've never stopped since.I'm not really going anywhere with this other than to show how far my baking has come along, I've made cakes, buns, scones, puddings and breads and more besides.
From top left clockwise: Chocolate Guinness cake, Sticky Chelsea buns, Clotted cream scones, Christmas pudding, Pumpkin bread

Although I am quite good at making simple breads I know that with a little work I could be a lot better. So I've set myself a challenge to improve my bread making as much as possible, I want to be able to make bread that's crisp on the outside but soft and chewy in the middle, the kind of bread you can buy in French bakeries that has great big air holes in it and bags of flavour. It's no easy task but I'm off to a good start, I've got myself a copy of Daniel Stevens River Cottage Bread Handbook and It's fantastic. I've already got books of bread recipes but where this one differs is that it explains why bread is made the way it is rather than just telling me to do it. No book I've had before has been so clear on what the consistency of the dough should be or how I should fold it, but those little points make the difference between good bread and great bread.These two loaves are my first attempt at making bread using the pre-ferment method, this involves making a small amount of very wet dough at least a day before the make the main batch. The pre-fermented dough is then added to the new dough giving it an amazing boost in flavour and vastly improving the texture. I actually couldn't believe how much difference such a simple technique could make until I tried it. I'll posting about my bread making every couple of weeks or whenever I discover anything new, hopefully by this time next year I'll have successfully baked sourdough and if things go really well croissants...Some other tips I picked up from the book were: -
  • Use Canadian bread flour if you can get it, it has the highest gluten content that results in the best bread.
  • The dough should be relatively sticky before you begin kneading it will begin to feel dryer and more elastic the longer you knead it.
  • Placing a tray of hot water in the oven prior to baking creates steam which keeps the crust softer for longer and allows your bread to rise higher during baking.
  • Most importantly of all, good bread takes time. Be patient!
Does anyone have any tips for making really good bread?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Spelt, walnut and plum cake

We have a farmers market once a month here in Leicester, it has a small but growing range of stalls some good, some not so good and some fantastic. My favourite stall undoubtedly is Woodhouse Farm, they raise all their own animals and produce the most amazing meat, the pork is possibly the most flavourful and succulent I have ever tried and the bacon is to die for.

The last market was two weeks ago, all the usual stalls were there, the pie stall, the organic farm, the chili stall and a new stall that I had never seen or heard of before. Elizabeth's Bakery had a small stand on the end of a row, like all the best bakeries they had a range of cakes that was so beautiful and looked so mouth wateringly delicious I couldn't pull myself away. What I really liked about Elizabeth's was the baker himself (I don't know where Elizabeth was), he was just so enthusiastic about everything he sold, for every cake he would tell me exactly what was in it, how he made and why it was absolutely the best cake ever and I just had to buy some!

There were fruit tarts, meringues, sachertorte, and individual blueberry cheesecakes all of which looked beautiful. I however took home a square of spelt, plum and walnut cake, I'd never seen a cake made with spelt flour before and was really interested to see how it came out, plus I love walnuts and plums so in the end the choice was a no brainer.
I don't know whether it was the spelt flour or the skill of the baker but the cake was unbelievable, it had a soft and tender texture, it was extremely moist and the plums and walnuts added lots of flavour. The cake was so good I had to have a go at making it myself. Unfortunately bakers aren't so enthusiastic about giving away their recipes so I scoured the Internet for ideas and inspiration. As is so often the case the prolific and ever brilliant Nigel Slater came up trumps, he has created a recipe for a spelt cake that used damsons and spelt flour, although his final cake wasn't quite the same as the cake from the market it gave me some idea of where to start.
Ready for the oven

My cake is a combination of Nigel Slater's recipe, the cake from the market and my own ideas. It turned out so much better than I ever thought it would, I'd almost go as far as say it was the perfect cake. I used Victoria plums for my cake, they're coming to the end of the season now but there are still a few around and are well worth buying if you find some otherwise any good plums will be fine. I finished the cake with an apricot glaze and dark chocolate, I wasn't sure about adding the chocolate thinking it might be one ingredient too far but it actually works really well, the bitterness of the chocolate sets off the sweet cake perfectly.
The finished cake

Spelt, walnut and plum cake (makes 9-12 squares)

  • 150g Butter
  • 150g Light soft brown sugar
  • 3 Medium eggs
  • 120g White spelt flour (I used Doves Farm organic flour, available from Sainsbury's and Waitrose in the UK, you can substitute with plain flour if you can't find any spelt although it won't be quite the same)
  • 75g Ground almonds
  • 2tsp Baking powder
  • 9-10 Plums halved and stoned
  • 70g Walnut pieces
  • Apricot baking glaze or smooth apricot jam
  • 30g Dark chocolate (I used Green and Blacks cooks chocolate)

Grease and line a 22cm square cake tin with a removable base and preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180C.

In a mixing bowl or in an electric mixer cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy then one at a time beat in the eggs until everything is smooth and well combined.

Next sift in the flour and baking powder and add the ground almonds and half of the walnuts, fold everything together gently. Pour the mixture into the cake tin and smooth down the surface with a spatula. Lay the plum halves on top, place them close together as they will shrink during cooking and you want to be sure there is plum in every slice, scatter the remaining walnut halves over.

Bake for 45-60 minutes, it's done when it feels firm to the touch. Leave the cake to cool on a rack before removing from the tin. Spread the apricot glaze over the top of the cake, be quite generous with it. Melt the chocolate in a bowl placed over some warm water then drizzle over the top. Once the chocolate has set the cake is ready.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Kentish cobnut pesto

I always like to experiment with new ingredients so I was delighted (and somewhat surprised) to find these fresh cobnuts at my local supermarket, still green and in there husks as nature intended. Cobnuts are a cultivated variety of hazelnut and a speciality of Kent, they are slightly larger than normal hazelnuts and have a delicious mild and milky flavour when eaten raw but a much more robust and nutty flavour when toasted. They are also a very seasonal ingredient, only available for a few weeks at the beginning of September.According to the Kentish Cobnut Association children used to play a version of conkers with cobnuts but I had a much better use for them. I was torn between two possible recipes for my wonderful cobnuts. One was a cobnut and apple cake which I'm sure would be a perfect combination, the other, and the recipe I settled for was a cobnut pesto using toasted cobnuts, flat leaf parsley, olive oil and Parmesan.

Shelling cobnuts is a time consuming task but by the time I had reached the last of the nuts I had become quite proficient at cracking the shells using a meat tenderiser, one swift whack and off the shells came. I dry toasted all but a handful of the shelled nuts in a hot pan until they were golden brown, the smell of toasted nuts was too good to resist nibbling on a few as I grated some Parmesan.Once The nuts had cooled I added them to the blender along with a large bunch of parsley, a big handful of grated Parmesan and a generous quantity of olive oil which I added in a steady trickle until the consistency looked just right.

Served tossed through tagliatelle pasta with a handful of wild rocket leaves, a few tomatoes and sprinkling of chopped raw cobnuts for a bit of crunch this made a delicious alternative to the usual basil pesto. If you can't find cobnuts this would work almost as well with good hazelnuts.
Cobnut (or hazelnut) pesto recipe (Added to pasta will serve at least 4)

  • 450g/1lb cobnuts in there shell (or about 200g shelled nuts)
  • A large bunch of fresh flat leaf parsley
  • A good handful of grated Parmesan
  • The best olive oil you have
  • Shell the nuts and toast in a hot dry pan until golden brown, nuts burn very easily so watch them!
  • Set the nuts aside to cool while you grate the Parmesan cheese
  • Add the cooled toasted nuts, parsley (stalks and all), Parmesan and a good slug of olive oil to a blender, blend everything together to a paste and add more oil until the consistency is right, it should be quite loose not thick or dry.
  • Toss through pasta or use in any recipe where pesto is called for

Alternatively you can use a pestle and mortar to make this, follow the steps above but grind everything in the mortar.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Honey glazed Bara Brith

Bara Brith is a classic and very traditional Welsh fruit bread. The name Bara Brith literally translates as "speckled bread" as it is liberally speckled with raisins, currants, sultanas and mixed peel, it is made with brown sugar and flavoured with a mixture of spices such as cinnamon.Bara brith is sold in bakeries and tea shops all over Wales and is available in two varieties, one is risen with yeast which gives a more bread like texture, the other is risen with baking powder which results in a cakier texture. The yeasted version is the more traditional of the two but they are both equally good, if you ever find yourself in Wales make sure you stop by a tea room and order a slice.

Bara Brith is one of those strange foods that's right on the line between bread and cake. On the one hand it is sweet and full of fruit like cake, on the other hand it contains no added fat and can be toasted like a bread. Whatever you call it it is undeniably delicious and just perfect with a good cup of tea.The recipe I used comes from North Wales Tourism, I figured if ever there was an authentic recipe this would be it.
The first part of this recipe is also the most important, the mixture of dried fruit must be soaked in strong tea until it has become swollen, plump and juicy. It is vital that the fruit is soaked so that the finished bread is tender and moist not dry and crumbly. Once you have soaked your fruit the recipe is a doddle to make, just mix the ingredients together and bake in a greased pan, the mixture takes a long time to bake so you may need to cover it with foil halfway through to prevent the top from burning. Once cooked give the top a liberal brushing with honey and leave to cool. Serve spread with butter, Welsh of course!

The recipe can be found here.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Beef satay skewers with peanut dipping sauce

I know, I know, it's been way too long since I last posted! I'm sorry. After I finished my exams (which I passed, yay!) I just kind of ran out of inspiration. It's not that I haven't been cooking just nothing particularly blog worthy.

A couple of weeks ago I was skimming through the Serious Eats newsletter when I came across a recipe for beef satay. Now I love satay but normally it's made with chicken and the peanut sauce is cooked onto the meat this recipe is different and it instantly grabbed my attention.Unlike the more usual chicken this satay is made with cubes of beef which are marinaded in a mixture of soy and fish sauce with garlic, chili, coriander, onion and a little brown sugar. The marinade alone is unbelievably good, it's salty, sweet and slightly spicy and would make fantastic steaks just simply grilled.
For the satay part of the recipe a peanut sauce is made with peanut butter, chili, garlic, coriander and brown sugar. It makes a wonderful creamy yet spicy sauce to dip the skewers into or pour over the top.Ideally these would be cooked over charcoal for an authentic charred and smoky flavour, when I cooked these it was cold and raining so I just used a very hot griddle which worked well. I served them scattered with chopped coriander leaves and a squeeze of lime juice. Thai Jasmine rice makes a perfect accompaniment.

The recipe can be found here.